Women, know your place

The FT asks, “can you be a mother and a senior law firm partner?” It’s not asking whether women are capable of the job, thankfully; it’s a piece about the assumptions made about women that aren’t made about men.

The generally accepted issue is the choice many women face between partnership — on call 24/7 and under pressure to generate business — or starting a family.

The linked article quotes Farmida Bi of Norton Rose Fulbright:

For example, partners looking to build a team to work on a deal may assume a mother will not want a demanding client calling at 2am, or to travel frequently for work. These assumptions are not made about fathers.

As the article rightly notes, there is another assumption here: the assumption that 2am calls are necessary for that kind of work in the first place. But even if they are, there’s no fundamental reason why a woman would be any less suited to the role: it’s entirely possible that her partner is the one who looks after the kids while she’s fielding those oh-so-important calls.

The FT piece is about the legal profession but conscious and unconscious bias affects women in all industries. The 1950s characterisation of rainmakers vs homemakers, of men as high achievers and women as marking time until they pop out a bunch of babies is partly why women are under-represented at senior levels in so many organisations, why women are more likely to work part-time and why women are more likely to work in lower paid jobs.

Writer (and FT contributor) Sarah O’Connor recalls a conversation that perfectly illustrates the problem.

I once asked the head of a law firm why his firm had zero female partners. He said “Unfortunately being partner just isn’t compatible with having a family”. He had a photo of his kids on his desk.